How Mayor Durkan Could Surprise Seattle

A version of this piece originally ran at Seattle Magazine.

When Jenny Durkan and Cary Moon emerged as the top two vote-getters in the August primary election, there was no longer any question that Seattle would elect a female mayor. But when Durkan emerged victorious, with a commanding 56 percent of the vote, many were wondering if the first woman mayor in nearly 100 years would merely be more of the same. (Bertha Knight Landes, the first female mayor of a major American city, ended her single two-year term in 1928, when she was beaten by a man whose primary platform plank was that he was not a woman. No woman has come close to being elected mayor of Seattle since.)

“Murray 2.0” was a tag that dogged Durkan throughout the campaign, and the new mayor has been pilloried by Seattle’s left, with some justification, for being the “establishment” candidate—the one with money, backing from big businesses like Amazon and Comcast, and insider connections (her sister Ryan is a land-use attorney with many major local clients, her brother Jamie was a prominent Seattle lobbyist, and her brother Tim works for the city.)

Durkan has flinched at the “establishment” label—pointing to her work as an early advocate for marriage equality (Durkan is gay) as well as her support for undocumented immigrants as US attorney under former President Obama—but will it stick? She has four years to answer that question; in the meantime, here are some ways we think Durkan could—not will, but could—surprise Seattle:

By actually sticking to her promise to be the mayor “of the people, not of City Hall.”

On her first day as mayor, Durkan attended ceremonial swearing-in ceremonies from Delridge to Phinney, Ridgeand was officially sworn in several miles south of city hall, at the Ethiopian Community Center in Rainier Beach. If she keeps her commitment to be out in the neighborhoods, listening to neighborhood concerns personally instead of sending emissaries to meetings that are likely to get hot (as her predecessor Murray often did), she will build valuable trust, especially in communities that feel they lack a voice at city hall, like the East African immigrants of South Seattle or renters getting priced out of neighborhoods across the city.

By cleaning Murray’s house.

Durkan may have appointed Murray’s former chief of staff, Mike Fong, as her senior deputy mayor, but don’t let that fool you: Fong’s experience as a policy wonk and City Hall dealmaker long predates his time in the Murray office, spanning all the way back to 2001, when he worked as a policy staffer for the city council. Her other deputy mayor, Shefali Ranganathan, led the pro-transit Transportation Choices Coalition. The mayor has the ability to hire and fire the heads of more than two dozen city departments. This week, she announced the (voluntary) departure of police chief Kathleen O’Toole and the (requested) departure of City Light director Larry Weis. Scott Kubly, the head of the Department of Transportation, is already looking for jobs elsewhere. (Jesus Aguirre, the parks director, left shortly before Durkan took office.)

By implementing an activist agenda that includes compromise versions of policies Seattle’s left holds dear.

Some of her detractors scoffed when Durkan made free community college tuition a centerpiece of her campaign—her opponent Moon, for example, who immediately issued a statement calling for a progressive statewide income tax and capital gains tax to pay for education instead. Less than a week into her term, Durkan has already signed an executive order directing the city to come up with a plan to pay for the two-year-college proposal, and to begin implementing it in 2018, by expanding the number of credits that people in an existing program called 13th Year Promise can take for free. Other areas where Durkan could move fast: Implementing a new business tax or taxes on large employers—a proposal that came up late in this year’s budget cycle and failed to pass; expanding the families and education levy, which is up for another vote next year, to increase access to preschool; and moving forward with a safe drug consumption site in Seattle, which Durkan identified as a priority on the campaign trail.

By not being the new Ed Murray—and being the new Greg Nickels instead.

Below the marquee positions, Durkan’s day-one staff looks like the who’s who of the Nickels years, which ran from 2001 to 2009. There’s major initiatives director Kylie Rolf, Nickels’ onetime outreach coordinator; Andres Mantilla, also on Nickels’ outreach team; legislative affairs director Anthony Auriemma, who worked for Nickels late in his term; and office administrator Lyle Canceko, a former communications staffer for Nickels. Will surrounding herself with staffers for the former mayor, a competent centrist who was ousted after his muddled handling of a major snowstorm, make Durkan more likely to govern like Nickels, too? Hard to say—but during her kickoff in Rainier Beach, she did work in one snowstorm joke.

And finally: By surprising some of the transit advocates and urbanists who didn’t support her and being an effective advocate on the Sound Transit board.

No, Durkan isn’t likely to revisit the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda—an Ed Murray initiative that irks many urbanists because it doesn’t increase density at all in single-family neighborhoods, which make up the vast majority of Seattle’s residential land. But during the campaign, when her opponent was promising to speed up light rail with a loan that Sound Transit said wouldn’t actually help them, Durkan offered her own plan to get the trains running to Ballard and West Seattle faster by expediting the permit and construction process and paying for better bus service in the meantime.

 

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